Duck days attract birders to lakes

Hutton Lake NWR

Two members of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society scan one of the lakes at Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge for ducks. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published October 28, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Duck days attract birders to lakes.”

2014 Update: Find another Bird Banter column about Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge published June 22, 2014 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and June 30 in this blog. It may be quickest to type in “Hutton Lake” in the search box at the top of the Home page.

By Barb Gorges

Great minds think alike, certainly the minds of the field trip chairs for Cheyenne-High Plains and Laramie Audubon Societies, Art Anderson and Rhett Good, respectively. Fall is a great time for duck watching and Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to go. Thus, members of both chapters converged there Oct. 9.

It was a wonderful day to be outside. The dirt track of a road was almost completely dry. The wind was hardly enough to ripple the water and didn’t tear up my eyes when I peered through the spotting scope. Sunlight glinted off the Jelm Mountain observatory.

The refuge, southwest of Laramie, includes several lakes besides its namesake, all within practically a stone’s throw of each other. They lie out on the Laramie Plains with hardly a tree in sight.

The refuge lakes are part of a collection spread between the Medicine Bow Mountains to the west and the Laramie Range to the east. They are hollows blown out by the wind and filled with water naturally or with a little human assistance.

All birds that swim are not ducks, of course. The most abundant bird on the water was the American coot, more closely related to chickens than ducks. Completely black except for white bills, coots are easy to winnow out while searching for more interesting birds, but they can be fun to watch. Several were playing king of the hill on a pile of debris.

Ducks get easier to identify by October and November because they resume the brighter colors of the breeding plumage they discarded in May and June. Their summer feathers, called eclipse plumage, are drab.

Females are never easy to identify. Going by body shape is almost better than sorting through particular arrangements of brown feathers.

The easiest duck for me to pick out on this trip was the American wigeon. The light streak from the top of its bill up and over the top of its head was quite distinctive.

Someone pointed out a ruddy duck. If it hadn’t been holding its tail in that diagnostic, peculiar upright position, I’m sure I would have given up. Unlike the other duck species males, its breeding plumage season runs much later, March through August. Right now it is gray instead of ruddy colored.

The male green-winged teal were easier to pick out, sporting a wing-shaped patch of green over each eye. Unless they fly, you may not see the speculum, or patch, of green on each wing.

Other ducks observed included northern shoveler, ring-necked duck, canvasback, gadwall, lesser scaup, redhead and only a couple mallards. Another non-duck waterbird, eared grebe, also made an appearance.

The first birders to arrive at the first lake were able to identify black-bellied plover and a bald eagle before they flew off. When the rest of us arrived, the long-billed dowitchers and American avocets were still probing the shoreline unconcernedly. Someone identified a California gull.

At a second lake, a sharp-eyed birder noticed that the motionless lump sitting on the hillside opposite was a ferruginous hawk. As we moved on, a prairie falcon crossed our path. Later, a red-tailed hawk gave a nice performance. Northern harriers, however, were the most common hawk of the day.

Canada geese aren’t hard to identify, but every time a small flock flew over, we had to make sure they weren’t the sandhill cranes we kept hearing off in the distance. Finally, when we stopped on a high spot overlooking the last refuge lake, someone was able to scope out four tall, pale gray beings in a distant pasture feeding on insects, rodents, seeds, etc.

While all optic equipment was focused on the lakes, other terrestrial birds were also noted: horned lark, song sparrow and marsh wren.

We left the refuge to check out other Laramie Plains lakes, but one was back lit and by the time we got to Twin Buttes Lake, wind was chopping at the water and only gulls were circling round.

When I got home, the new issue of Wyoming Wildlife had arrived and perusing it, I came across mention of an online map of duck migration based on reports by hunters, www.ducks.org/migrationmap, on the Ducks Unlimited Web site.

Now that would be handy. I was thinking it might track migration so that I could find out how much earlier pintails and blue-winged teal migrate. But it isn’t very specific, has no archives, and it needs a lot more participants.

So, we’ll just have to get out and look for ourselves on local lakes, which I did the very next day, at Sloans Lake in Lions Park. With no one to turn to for authoritative identification, I scrutinized what I determined was a female ruddy. Three days later, birding with Cub Scouts, we scoped a bufflehead and a redhead, both ducks, though they don’t use that noun in their official common names.

A week later, Mark and I identified eared grebe, pied-billed grebe and more ruddy ducks.

Lions Park was designated a Wyoming Important Bird Area for a reason. It’s not just for mallards begging handouts. I’m looking forward to more trips around Sloans Lake to see what the season brings in.

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Ducks easy to i.d. in spring

Hooded Merganser

The Hooded Merganser shows up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, from time to time and is considered rare here.

Published May 1, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Now’s the perfect time to identify ducks.”

2014 Update: Look up the ducks mentioned at http://www.allaboutbirds.org. All photos in this post are courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By Barb Gorges

A cold, nasty spring day is a good day for ducks. My husband Mark and I laid the spotting scope in the backseat of the car and headed out to check the reservoirs on Crow Creek.

Spring is the easiest time of year to identify ducks: the males have complete breeding plumage; the drab and confusing females are swimming close to their associated males; and there aren’t any half-grown young with half adult plumage.

There are difficulties though. The day we went out, cold wind made my eyes water when I tried to look through the scope. Some ducks dive, so when Mark got the scope centered on an individual, by the time I took a look-see, there was only empty water, with the duck reappearing somewhere outside the scope’s field of vision.

At our city park lakes, at first glance every duck seems to be a mallard, the males sporting those distinctive green heads. But don’t short-change yourself by assuming the ordinary.

Mallards are puddle ducks. When they tip over to feed, only their tails are visible. When one comes back up, look to see if it’s a drake mallard with bright green head and yellow bill, or does it have a green head and a big black bill like a spatula (male northern shoveler)?

Pin-tailed Ducks

Pin-tailed Ducks

Or is it pointy-tailed and brownish gray all over except for a white breast ending in a streak up the side of its neck (male northern pintail)?

Or is it completely blah brown and gray, but with a very black butt (male gadwall)?

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

Or maybe the most noticeable field mark is a white crescent on its cheek (male blue-winged teal). Or the whole duck is a reddish, cinnamon brown (male cinnamon teal).

Cinnamon Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Or maybe the duck you’re looking at keeps diving, completely submerging to feed. Does it have a dark red head and a light colored bill (male redhead)?

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup

Or are the duck’s head and breast black followed by a pale gray back, white sides and black tail (male lesser scaup)? Or perhaps it is patterned black and white with a big white splotch on both sides of its head (male bufflehead).

Bufflehead

Bufflehead

Or maybe the duck has a white cheek, black cap, red-brown body with a tail held at a jaunty, nearly vertical angle (male ruddy duck).

Or maybe the head seems small for a duck and there are ragged feathers sticking out from the back of the head (some kind of merganser) like the birds we saw at Lions Park and couldn’t narrow down to species.

Or maybe the bird floating on the lake isn’t a duck at all. The American coot is really a swimming chicken—all black with a white bill and lobed toes instead of webbed feet.

While we saw all of the above mentioned birds Easter weekend, this is not a complete list of duck and duck-like possibilities.

It was evidently too early for grebes, non-duck waterbirds easy to spot at Lions Park. The pied-billed (black and white bill) grebe is half the size of a mallard. Even though it’s light brown, it reminds me of a rubber duckie the way it bobs and dives.

In contrast, the western grebes that show up every year are large gray birds with long, elegant, white-fronted necks.

While some of the ducks I’ve listed might have spent the winter here or may spend the summer and nest, others are passing through to higher latitudes.

But even for the ducks that summer here, don’t wait too long to try your hand at identification.

By July some ducks begin to molt or the young, soon adult-sized but not adult-colored, start paddling around and then you’re stuck trying to use much more subtle field marks such as the shape of the head or the shadow of a facial marking. It’s less frustrating to spend time with a field guide and in the field studying the birds while markings are clear.

Ducks, because they are often in the middle or on the other side of a lake, are often out of binocular range and difficult to identify. With a little help from other birders and a spotting scope, you should be able to figure out most of the ducks—males in breeding plumage anyway.

Then you can start on the next challenging group of birds. Where Crow Creek was flooding the day we were out, Mark and I saw the quintessential long-legged, long-billed, mottled gray shorebird.

Oh gosh. Thirty-eight pages of the field guide to pick from. Was it some kind of plover, yellow-legs, willet, sandpiper or dowitcher? Maybe I should take up a different challenge next instead, like warblers or flycatchers.

Duck diversity identified

Mallard

A Mallard drake has a bright green head during the breeding season, bright orange legs and a bright yellow bill. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 18, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Duck diversity: How to separate those mallards from shovelers.”

2014 Update: We’ve also seen Wood Ducks in Cheyenne now for several years, but only occasionally. Newspaper style does not allow for capitalizing bird names, except for proper nouns. For this article the editor allowed the capitalized names in quote marks so that the names could more easily be distinguished from the descriptions. Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society continues to offer spring birding classes. For photos of other birds mentioned, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org.

By Barb Gorges

Spring is a wonderful time to learn to identify ducks because all the drakes (males) are in full breeding plumage. No matter how old they are or where you see them, they look just like their pictures in the field guides–which you can’t say about many other bird groups.

Plus, ducks are large and easy to see, especially here on Sloan’s Lake in Lions Park. A spotting scope is handy to have, but the lake is small enough you can see important field marks with binoculars.

First, let’s dismiss all the geese, the large gray birds with the black necks and heads that are here all year round. Be sure to impress your friends with the knowledge that this species is properly named “Canada Goose,” not “Canadian Goose.”

Next, let’s sort out all the brown ducks. These are the females of all duck species. Without inspecting their body shape and particular wing feathers, the best way to identify them is to see with which males they swim.

Then, let’s review the field marks of the “Mallard,” the most abundant, most recognizable local duck here year round. Many no longer migrate because they’ve figured out misguided people will feed them.

The mallard drake has the bright, iridescent green head (except when molting in the fall), bright orange legs, bright yellow bill and a tail that curls. There are many other features that could be described, but these field marks distinguish the mallard from other ducks we see locally.

Also, they are the only ones, along with the Canada geese, that will approach you for a handout.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler has a wide bill like a spatula. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Another duck with a bright green head, the “Northern Shoveler,” has an elongated body shape ending in a black bill that looks like a shovel or spatula. Its breast is bright white and its sides are chestnut brown.

Two species of ducks have plain red heads, as in the brightest brown chestnut color of red hair. One, aptly named “Redhead,” has a nice rounded head like the mallard’s, with its bill jutting out at about a 90-degree angle to its forehead. The other, the “Canvasback,” has a sloping forehead continuous with the slope of its bill–what the field guides like to call a “ski slope.”

Green-winged Teal

The Green-winged Teal is named for a green patch on its wing, but the green marking on its head seems wing-shaped. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A third red-headed duck, the “Green-winged Teal,” has a section of green feathers that can be seen when it extends its wing, but it also has a green, wing-shaped marking that encircles each eye and extends to the back of its neck.

American Wigeon

The American Wigeon also has a green patch over its eye, but has a wide, white stripe over its forehead. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The “American Wigeon” has the same green wing shape over its eye, but it has a spectacularly wide white stripe from the top of its bill to the back of its head.

A white stripe up either side of its neck distinguishes the “Northern Pintail,” an otherwise grayish bird. The stripes are easier to see than the long, pointy tail.

A white crescent on either side of its face, between eye and bill, sets the “Blue-winged Teal” apart, since many other ducks also show a blue speculum (section) on their wings.

If a duck is all chestnut red, and shaped like a mallard, it is the “Cinnamon Teal.” If it has a tail that sticks up stiffly, and it sports bright white cheeks and a bright blue bill, it’s a “Ruddy Duck.”

There are several black and white duck species, two of which we see in winter, “Common Goldeneye,” and “Bufflehead.” But by spring, you are most likely to see the “Lesser Scaup.” Its head and tail ends are black and its middle is white. The “Ring-necked Duck” looks just like it but with good optics, the black tip on the blue and white bill is noticeable.

The “Gadwall” has the distinction of being the plainest duck, just a sort of fine, tweedy gray, but it is the only gray duck solidly black under the tail.

Common Merganser

The Common Merganser has a dark green head, like several other ducks, but the bill is long and thin. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It is possible to see mergansers on Sloan’s Lake. All three species, “Common Merganser” being most likely, have long thin bills for catching fish. They have small heads with feathers that sprout like a bad hair day.

Not all birds that can swim are ducks. The “American Coot” doesn’t have webbed feet. It has a compact, all-black body shaped like a rubber ducky and a distinctive bright white bill.

The grebes are not ducks either. The “Western Grebe,” a larger gray bird with a long, white-fronted neck, will be back soon, entertaining us with its water-dancing mating rituals.

The “Pied-billed Grebe,” small, short-necked and brown with a black and white bill, is not as noticeable. Horned and eared grebes are more likely on larger reservoirs.

And then there are the big, dark brown “Double-crested Cormorants” that float low, as if waterlogged, or fly overhead looking like sticks with wings.

There are a couple unidentifiable ducks at Sloan’s Lake that are the offspring of domestic white ducks mating with mallards. You’ll know that’s what they are because they have the mallard shape, if not size and colors, and they hang out with the mallards.

Also, there are all those other swimming birds that make surprise visits: pelicans, swans and unusual gulls and terns.

I meant to make this a simple guide to the most common ducks to be seen at Sloan’s Lake this spring, and already I’ve mentioned 16 and referred to a dozen other water birds. At least it will make it easier for you to choose what birds to study in your field guide.

If you want more help, sign up for the beginning bird class at Laramie County Community College. It includes two, 2-hour, Thursday evening classroom sessions and two, 2-hour, Saturday morning local field trips May 3-12.

I know it’s hard to believe that so many kinds of ducks can show up on a lake in the middle of town, surrounded by people walking dogs. But that’s the magic of migration. All you have to do is look.